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“Oh, the Exclamation Point”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Oh, the Exclamation Point”
Luke 21: 25-36
Bach Vespers (BWV 70-“Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!”)
Christ the King (November 26, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The Bible’s apocalyptic literature gives religion a bad name. That whacky end of the world stuff is grist for “The New Yorker” cartoons and makes people steer clear of the church altogether even when Bach is billed.

Wouldn’t you agree that this evening’s cantata is similar. No sooner had we settled into our pews for a long winter’s nap than Herr Bach grabbed us by the neck with a ferocious musical flurry: instruments storming, voices bursting—“Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH!

Did you perchance notice the exclamation points, not one but four?

I am never quite sure how to use the exclamation point properly but I have discovered that my sermon manuscripts are littered with them: if one exclamation point does the trick, a million must certainly be sublime!

But of the whimsical exclamation point, Strunk and White in their classic writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” warn: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.”

Why then, I ask you, does Cantor Bach feel compelled to use four in a row: Watch—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Watch—exclamation point! Could it be that Bach believed German literary style trumped English usage! Don’t get upset…Just wondering.

You know as well as I that something serious is going on tonight. Bach is kicking us in the pants, especially those of us who thought we could come here for a genteel Sunday evening concert and not be bombarded by religious madness. We never expected end-of-the-world stuff to assault our hearing.

Exclamation points rule the night as the trumpet blasts, the strings and reeds rage, and the choir storms. WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH! Wild-eyed and disheveled Johann Sebastian Bach is wandering up and down Central Park West with a hand drawn placard that announces, “Be frightened, you stubborn sinners, the Lord of glory is coming!”—that’s Bach by the way, not I.

If you haven’t, I urge you to go see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Breuer. While it is entitled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” if they had asked me, I would have name it “Norwegian Seasonal Affective Disorder Art.” The lively colors of Munch’s paintings are dulled by “bronchitis, isolation, sleeplessness, restlessness, despair, drunkenness, unending screams.”

I loved the exhibit much like I love this evening’s cantata. Even with “You stubborn sinners…O sinful generation, unto eternal heartache…Let us quickly flee from Sodom…” ringing in our ears, even with stormy, depressing, angry, apocalyptic, bizarre language pummeling us, Bach is not done. Pay attention as the angelic voices of the Holy Trinity Bach Choir and the gorgeous accompaniment of period instruments weave their enchanting charm; note how your eyes suddenly twinkle, your feet start tapping, your heart pleasantly palpitates.

Composers of religious music worthy the name have the astonishing gift of weaving hope amidst the furious desperation of our lives. They are no different than the Old Testament prophets. No matter how judgmental and scolding, hope inevitably sneaks in.

My Old Testament professor Brevard Childs expected us seminarians to locate hope in every prophet no matter how vindictive they first sounded; that was always our homework, night after night, find the hope. Tonight, your task is the same: listen to the cantata and locate hope.

So curious: just when we are about to storm out of this church’s big red doors, convinced we have run into another bizarre religious cult where the pastor harangues us and the musicians point us to an eternal inferno, just then, when we have all but given up finding any semblance of a peaceful evening in this place, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we are enthralled by majestic words of hope.

Listen: “Raise your heads upward and be comforted, you devout ones, at your souls’ blooming. You shall flourish in Eden to serve God eternally…Jesus leads [you] into stillness, to that place where pleasure abounds.”

Now that deserves at least four exclamation points right in a row!!!! Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! And, by all means, hope!